She & Him – Volume Two

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

My friend Brian hates Squeeze. I find this strange, though not because I am particularly invested in defending Squeeze. I do happen to think they have some great songs, but I really couldn’t care less about the band. And that’s my point. Squeeze seems like one of the most generic, inoffensive, fundamentally faceless bands there is. She & Him, despite their pedigree, has Squeeze beat at this particular no-win game. She & Him generate exactly zero passion on my part. They’re fine. I like their songs. But I couldn’t bring myself to say I love them even if it meant a lifetime of financial security for me and my children. I can’t imagine anyone loving this band.

What I Think of This Album

Volume Two is significantly better than Volume One, as if the debut had been a test balloon of some sort that, having not been brought down by hostile seagulls or red-eyed right-wing militia members, convinced Zooey Deschanel (in particular) that she could actually do this.

Deschanel offers up a very strong set of songs, and M. Ward also seems more at ease and willing to provide a bit more color than last time. Again, it’s all very light and lovely, cheery even when the subject matter is blue, taking everyone back to a time when we didn’t know that Phil Spector was a terrifying maniac.

From the wondrous opener “Thieves” to the Latin/county mashup “Lingering Still” to the clever reliance on Greek mythology in “Don’t Look Back” to the country-soul of “Home” to the straight country of “I’m Gonna Make It Better,” She & Him create a warm and welcoming universe where heartbreak is just the lemon in the lemonade. Also, not every song is countrified – “In the Sun” is jazz-disco.

Even the covers work this time, helped along by the fact that they are much more obscure than the ill-advised Beatles and Smokey Robinson efforts of the first album:  NRBQ’s “Ridin In My Car” and “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” a song from 1951 whose most famous version is by Skeeter Davis in 1964 (though the Lemonheads and Bad Manners also covered it). Neither of these songs comes with enough heritage to overwhelm She & Him, and their versions are able to breathe and even thrive.

The Best Thing About This Album

The increased sense of confidence.

Release Date

March, 2010

The Cover Art

Pretty cool, and this time the figure has (partial) facial features, so it’s not nearly as nightmare-inducing.

Eleventh Dream Day – Zeroes and Ones

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

After a three-album stint on Atlantic, Eleventh Dream Day returned home to the indies. While they undoubtedly belonged there, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t have found success while on a major label. It just didn’t work out, even though El Moodio was probably the most accessible album of their career. The band released Ursa Major in 1994, Eighth in 1997, and Stalled Parade in 2000. I have listened to Stalled Parade and Eighth for sure, and maybe Ursa Major? There are some good songs on there, but overall the band strays too far from their strengths and get too atmospheric for me. It was therefore a relief when Zeroes and Ones arrived. In fairness to the band, they released other albums later in their career that reportedly rock out like in the early days – Riot Now! (2011) and Works for Tomorrow (2015) – but I admit I have not yet given those a listen. I plan to, though.

What I Think of This Album

This is a record I wasn’t sure Eleventh Dream Day would ever make, and I am glad they did.

As much as I am wont to blame Doug McCombs for the change in the band sound on the preceding albums, I have to admit that he does a fine job on bass, particularly on the poppy, tuneful “Dissolution.” That first track also introduces keyboardist/percussionist Mark Greenberg (The Coctails), who succeeds in supplementing the tracks with subtle colorings.

Rick Rizzo throws down his usual excellent guitar, whether it’s the crunching chords that drive “Insincere Inspiration” or the Neil Young-influenced “For Martha” (which begins with a “Be My Baby”-esque drum intro). “Martha” has one of the best (albeit far too short) Eleventh Dream Day solos in a while, and Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean harmonize like their lives depend on it (the overlapping call-and-response segment is fantastic). 

The middle of the album is a little problematic. “New Rules” flows gently, and while Rizzo lays down a solo with some great tones, overall the slow pace is not my cup of tea, and it goes on for almost eight minutes. Greenberg’s vibes/marimba and McCombs’ bass are the best things about the “Lost In the CIty,” which is at least interesting even if not really enjoyable. “Lately I’ve Been Thinking” sounds like the work of disaffected teens, and I can only hope it was done with a wink. “Return of the Long Shadow” is another slow, somber number that suffers from a lack of melody.   

But the clouds clear with Beveridge Bean’s sole lead vocal turn on “The Lure,” which sounds sly and sexy, and benefits from some nasty lead work from Rizzo. Rizzo in turn sounds energized on “From K to Z,” which is punchy and loud. “For Everything” strikes the right balance between the energy of the rockers and the slow build of the more languid tunes. If I let my brain relax a little, I can hear some Wire in this tense, spiky song.

The sleeper track may be “Pinwheels,” on which every band member gives a terrific performance:  McCombs’ bass is elastic and musical, Greenberg adds some pillowy organ, Beveridge Bean and Rizzo harmonize like drunken angels, Beveridge Bean hit the drums with authority, and Rizzo’s guitar adds the right amount of grit  

Closer “Journey WIth No Maps” is another slow song; more importantly, it’s the best slow song of the album. Greenberg introduces piano and mellotron, the vocalists sing a truly pretty melody, and Rizzo plays with admirable restraint (but still that wonderful, fuzzy tone).

Tangents:  I saw the Coctails open for the Pixies on their first reunion tour. The producer for this album was McComb’s bandmate in Tortoise, John McEntire (also of The Sea and Cake).

The Best Thing About This Album

This is the return to form I wanted from Eleventh Dream Day.

Release Date

April, 2006

The Cover Art

Waaaaaayyyyy too on the nose. The artwork on the rest of the album confirms that the images are supposed to be representations of the album title (i.e., circles and vertical lines, though a zero is really an oval, not a circle). I do like the speaker, just because I like speakers. And the font works really well, as does the composition of the text. The orange-red tone (also found on the tray and the back cover) makes me almost ill. I like orange, and I like red, but this in-between shit is no good.

Saturday Looks Good to Me – Fill Up the Room

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

If you plotted a chart (or is it a graph?) of the artists in my music collection, whereby the x-axis ranged from Obscure to Popular and the y-axis represented the Number of Albums Owned, I think Saturday Looks Good to Me would probably be the most extreme outlier, as I own six albums by this relatively unknown conglomerate. Interestingly, the next band in my collection – Saturnine – poses possibly the greatest threat to SLGTM’s weird dominance. That band is far less popular and while I only have two of their albums, they released a total of six, so in theory, I could expand my library to have them take the crown on this.

What I Think of This Album

This is a tough album for me. Mastermind Fred Thomas decided to change things up, and I think that was a mistake. For one, the arrangements are more traditional (with one notable exception) and lack the strong orchestral elements of past work. Crucially, Thomas handles almost all the lead vocals alone, and for the first time, SLGTM sounds like a Thomas vehicle more than a Thomas project.

This album came out in 2007, and Thomas also released three solo albums in 2006 and 2007, so perhaps he carried over the philosophy of his individual efforts and applied it to this recording. It’s a disappointing effort, even as it houses some pretty good songs, including perhaps one of the best Saturday Looks Good to Me tunes ever.

It also hosts perhaps one of the worst SLGTM songs. If a detractor of indie-pop pointed to opening track “Apple” as an example of the defects with the genre, I would be hard-pressed to mount a defense. While the slide guitar lick is cool, it is overused and Thomas’s singing quickly devolves into a series of formless bleats against a listless tempo. 

“When I Lose My Eyes” gallops like a horse trying to be first in line for that Spector reissue on Record Store Day. The drums carry this song, but the brass flourishes are very welcome and Thomas pairs it all with a fine melody. That said, it wears out its welcome at almost 7:00, and the blasts of distorted guitar at the end should have arrived much, much sooner. The opposite problem reveals itself on the too-short “Peg”; Thomas actually croons sweetly, but one gets the impression he wasn’t trying too hard on this one, which is a shame.

The novel ethnic influences are misguided and unsuccessful. “Lose My Eyes” segues almost seamlessly into “Make a Plan,” a slight tune featuring Latin guitars and an overly precious delivery, though some of the sound effects are interesting. Meanwhile, “Money In the Afterlife” sounds distressingly close to (and worse, short of) Vampire Weekend and that band’s appropriation of Afro-pop guitar sounds.

The second half of the album fares better, not coincidentally, as the deviations from the band’s prior sound diminish for a stretch. There is a glassine quality to “The Americans,” which could only have been improved if Thomas had left the vocals to one of his usual female collaborators (though he does an adequate job with it). When the strings finally come in, it feels like Saturday Looks Good to Me has come home again. 

Too, the energetic, handclap-driven “Edison Girls” is the kind of song Betty Marie Barnes or Erika Hoffman (Godzuki) would have knocked out of the park. Ironically, Barnes’s swooping vocals on the glorious “Hands In the Snow” only reinforces the missed opportunities with the other tracks. “Hands” is a regret-fueled breakup song with some exceptional lyrics and one of the best melodies Thomas ever crafted. “And I watch you drink / Invisible ink / So I won’t know / When you swallow your words.” I am on the floor. I am speechless.

Paired with the standout from the first half – “(Even If You Die On the) Ocean” – these tracks make up the heart of the album. As for “Ocean,” Thomas’s charm swells higher and higher with every beat of the bouncy, Motown-derived treat, riding a catchy wave that will hopefully wipe the world clean. 

Unfortunately, the album closes weakly (at best). The final song (“Whitey Hands” – uh, what?) marks a return to Thomas’s experimental impulses, a sort of avant-garde mashup that blends banjo, busy snare work, and trippy production effects. The slow, spare ballad that precedes it (“Come With Your Arms”) really adds nothing to this album.

I don’t know why, but the fact that this was on K Records just makes it all worse. That pairing should have worked really well, and I feel like Thomas squandered the opportunity.

Many of the usual suspects contributed to the music on this (see the earlier posts on the other albums), though there are only eleven guests this time, which seems low compared to the usual mix.

The Best Thing About This Album

Hands down, “Hands In the Snow.”

Release Date

October, 2007

The Cover Art

Absolutely terrible. I can’t believe I still own this album. It’s like insult after injury.

Saturday Looks Good To Me – Sound On Sound

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

I can’t think of a band that needed a mop up collection like this more than Saturday Looks Good to Me. As acknowledged on the back cover, Sound On Sound gathers “limited and unavailable” tracks previously shared with the world only via CD-R and vinyl releases with very limited runs (like, 100 copies) from 2000-2005.

What I Think of This Album

This is a deceptively delightful collection of lost tracks from Fred Thomas’s Michigan-based indie-pop project. Perhaps due to its size or to the lack of a unifying style, the album as whole comes across as disposable, but on a song-by-song basis, it’s really fun and consistently high quality. A true fan-oriented release, part of the appeal is in hearing how different some of these songs are from what normally ends up on SLGTM’s full-length albums.

Highlights include the winsome “Can’t Ever Sleep” and the charming “Your Small Heart.” It is too easy to fall in love with Godzuki singer Erika Hoffman’s vocals on “Summer Doesn’t Count (Unless You’re Here With Me),” and the surprisingly barbed guitar part is a welcome twist on the band’s style. “Diary” would probably fail in anyone else’s hands, but this sincere romanticism is precisely what Thomas excels at and may be the best song on the album. 

The brief and reverb-cloaked (reverb-burdened?) “Liquor Store” is a gleeful experiment in lo-fi damage. “Labcoat” manages to be both mumbly and delicate. “Pet Store” is an instrumental that Spector would’ve lost his (deranged) mind over. And, the garagey version of “The Girl’s Distracted,” with the dirtiest guitar tone I’ve ever heard from this band, is a nice surprise.

“Light Bulb Heart” (what a great concept – illuminating, warm, fragile) is way out of left field, with a hard soul rhythm, tough girl sing-speak vocals, and *another* nasty guitar solo. In fact, soul informs several songs on this comp, as evidenced by the harmonica and handclaps on “When You Go Out Tonight” and the uncharacteristic energy (including a gritty sax part) of “Girl of Mine,” which honestly could’ve been a Wilson Pickett number. “Hiding” is pure Marvelletes, and “Parking Lot Blues” sounds like a Jackson 5 hit that never was. And once you get past the annoying intro, “I Don’t Want to Go” is another girl-group/soul type number.

I appreciate how the programmed beats of “Nervous” perfectly evoke the title. This is not the only track here that, by virtue of the synthesized drums and the naked sentimentality (to say nothing of the songwriter’s preference to have others sing lead), provokes comparisons to the Magnetic Fields. See also “It Sounds Like They’re In Love With You.” 

The Ramones cover (“Listen to My Heart”) doesn’t work – surprising, as both bands share roots in girl-group sonics and songwriting. There are two more covers. One is “Blue Christmas” (popularized by Elvis and also recorded by the Beach Boys). This is outshone by competing holiday song “Christmas Blues,” with a gospel organ and the umpeeth guitar solo that raises my eyebrows on this disc. There is actually a third holiday tune here:  the instrumental part of the chorus of “This Time Every Year” is to die for (which disputes Thomas’s lyric that “nobody wants to die that way”), and the buried guitar solo is awesome. The other cover is “Learn to Live With Your Heartbreak,” the only prior version of which I have been able to identify is from a 1967 Patty Duke album comprised mostly of songs from Valley of the Dolls. Presumably, the cover came from the Patty Duke Fanzine #5 release from 2003, of which 500 copies were pressed.

The distorted guitar of “Disaster” – which is actually dominated by the ominous Zombies-like organ – still manages to surprise even with the song slotted in at track 27. The clarinet and horn parts remind me of Morton Stevens’s “Hawaii 5-0 Theme.” Almost lost among the other songs is the moving “Last Year,” with a critical harmonica (or it might be an organ) part. Sleepy final track “Own” paraphrases liberally from the Smiths’ “I Don’t Owe You Anything.” 

As usual, the guest list is long and includes vocalists Kelly Jean Caldwell, Erika Hoffman(-Dilloway) (as she is billed here, which I have never seen before), Ko Melina (the opposite of Hoffman(-Dilloway) insofar as she is credited only as Ko, which I have also never seen before), Betty Marie Barnes, and the mysterious Dara. Plus instrumentalists Aidan Dysart, Elliot Bergman of Wild Belle, Zach Wallace (His Name Is Alive), Ida Pearle (a name I can only assume was stolen from a silent film star), and others, but this time, surprisingly, not Warn Defever.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar tone – I understand why Thomas doesn’t employ it for regular releases, but it really adds a new dimension on these tracks.

Release Date

February, 2006

The Cover Art

The artwork is terrible. The image actually seems appropriate to Fred Thomas’s ethos; I just don’t like how the idea was executed.

Saturday Looks Good to Me – Every Night

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I am pretty sure this was the first Saturday Looks Good to Me album I bought, and as is often the related case, it is my favorite SLGTM record. Researching the liner notes has made me feel incredibly untalented and underachieving.

What I Think of This Album

If I could only rescue one SLGTM from the Christo-fascist mob that will someday come to reeducate me, this is the one I would save. Mastermind Fred Thomas upgraded the production values without losing any of the retro charm. He also turned in an excellent set of songs, recruited a compelling new female vocalist in Betty Marie Barnes, and improved his own singing considerably. I defy you to not like this album.

Right from the start, tearjerker “Since You Stole My Heart” demonstrates all that is right with the album. The heartfelt, nuanced and powerful vocal from Barnes (I think) is priceless, surrounded by a clever and fresh backing that includes saxophone and an organ interlude, and just-this-side-of-sappy lyrics that firmly root the piece in ‘60s girl group aesthetics (as well as sonics). The strings outro is gorgeous, to boot.

The back-to-back placing of two of my favorite songs on the album is likely what cements my love for it. The sweet, acoustic “When the Party Ends” features a late arriving and eye-opening rhyme scheme, some of Thomas’s best singing ever, and a gauzy, cocooning string arrangement. “Dialtone” is equally witty with another prime performance from Thomas; the arrangement builds slowly at first, with spare bass, subtle piano, and percussion joining the acoustic guitar until Thomas calls the rest of the band in, who participate with enthusiasm in what sounds like an indie-pop hootenanny.

That these tracks are followed by the amazing “We Can’t Work It Out” (nice) is almost too much for my heart to bear:  Berry Gordy and Phil Spector are clapping in their graves over this one. “Empty Room” hangs out in the same neighborhood, sort of like the precocious little sister who tags along with the big kids:  not quite able to achieve at the same level, but very impressive and confident nonetheless.

High drama informs the accusatory “All Over Town” (Barnes, again, I think), which is Motown on steroids. “Lift Me Up” starts out sounding like the Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” but Thomas is a more committed revivalist than Paul Weller; the vocals by Barnes (I’m almost sure) are excellent. Thomas delivers a heartfelt and delicate ballad in “When You Got to New York,” with some excellent lyrics and a nice accordion accompaniment, and of course the strings come in later.

Spector-ish drums propel the jaunty “Until the World Stops Spinning,” which ends up being a hipster putdown (“But the girls think you’re a joke / With your jacket from the thrift store and your little rum and Coke”). Thomas thus ends up delivering a modern tale wrapped up in the same retro clothes the subject of the song is mocked for.

Thomas takes the lead on “Keep Walking,” pushing against the upper limits of his range, but the rest of the energetic, quasi-gritty track works just fine.. A much more effective Thomas-sung number is the dark, lush, Zombies-adjacent (Those drums! That organ! The vibraphone!) “If You Ask,” which contains a surprisingly lengthy, dense, sometimes disorienting instrumental section that justifies the label “epic;” at almost five minutes, it is probably the longest song the band had ever recorded up to that point. 

One small stumble is duet “The Girl’s Distracted,” which is too lighthearted and silly, though the musical performance is excellent – the string arrangement in particular comes close to saving the track.

As usual, the band is a constellation of Thomas’s friends and peers (18 this time), several of them with ties to the corporate world:  Warn Defever (His Name Is Alive); Elliott Bergman (Wild Belle); Scott Sellwood (who is an attorney and has been an executive at Meta and YouTube); Charles Koltak (a public school teacher in Chicago); Scott DeRoche (a member of Drunken Barn Dance with Sellwood and possibly also a digital marketing executive); Joseph Hintz (a financial analyst with a mutual fund family); Nate Cavalieri (the Sights, and also an author of a Lonely Planet travel book and a journalist); Justin Walter (who has trumpeted with Iron & Wine and His Name Is Alive); Michael Herbst (Antibalas, and also an executive at Morningstar); and Faith Gazic (Terror At the Opera), plus vocalists Kelly Jean Caldwell; the previously mentioned Barnes; Ko Melina (the Dirtbombs); and Erika Hoffman (Godzuki, His Name Is Alive).

The Best Thing About This Album

Thomas’s songwriting and arranging are at their peak here.

Release Date

September, 2004

The Cover Art

I am very into the pink tones, and the duo-toned image of accordionist is cool. The font is subpar.

Saturday Looks Good to Me – All Your Summer Songs

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

On the list of all the things I expect from Saturday Looks Good to Me, ontological questions do not rank. Yet, here we are. This is technically SLGTM’s fourth album, I believe. But the first three had such constrained releases that they were basically impossible to find. All Your Summer Songs is on Polyvinyl, which, while still a small indie, at least has some effective distribution, arguably making this the first reasonably available SLGTM album. So, if your albums cannot be found or purchased, do they even count as albums?

What I Think of This Album

Uh, the first song has no title? It’s not even titled “Untitled.” On the track listing, next to the numeral 1, it’s just blank. I guess I should be grateful Fred Thomas mustered the willpower to title the remaining 12 songs. With few exceptions, this baker’s dozen of tunes is very appealing.

“Ambulance” reappears in a fuller, duet version and while a great song no matter what, I much prefer the original. “The Sun Doesn’t Want to Shine” is a somber, Thomas-sung tearjerker that he doesn’t really have the chops to pull off. The same problem infects the title track as well as final song “Last Hour,” which otherwise would’ve been a nice and sparkly little number. This is the sum total of the disappointments on the disc.

Everything else is great, relying on Thomas’s exceptional lyrics, accomplished melodic sense, and production techniques borrowed from Phil Spector and Berry Gordy. We also get a lyric sheet, which I always appreciate, though it is out of order, which I always disdain. 

“Meet Me By The Water” and “Underwater Heartbeat” share an aquatic theme, but little else (apart from great melodies and charming vocals). The former is wrapped in an echoey, reverb-heavy beach towel, featuring some dub-like effects, and the latter is neat, horn-flecked Motown pastiche nearly undone by an unconvincing “fucking” thrown in for no reason. 

“Caught” is delicate as crystal, and one could imagine the Crystals singing it. I believe it is Detroit hero Matthew Smith (Outrageous Cherry) who sings lead on the excellent “No Good With Secrets,” which could actually work very well as an Outrageous Cherry song (minus the strings and twinkly percussion). Possibly the best song here is “Alcohol,” with a surprisingly nasty guitar tone that will clear your sinuses and some Zombies-esque drumming, as well as horn accents and a fine vocal.

Putting up a good fight for the crown on this album is “Typing,” a tender, broken-hearted ballad that the vocalist delivers with an expert mix of sadness, empathy, and sweetness, against a backdrop of woodwinds and lightly clattering drums. Janglified “You Work All Weekend” frankly needs a better singer than Thomas, but even his pitchy performance can’t distract from the song’s excellent melody, construction, and arrangement. Amateurish voice aside, Thomas’s talent is undeniable and galvanizing.

This is all the more apparent on the bouncy, Motown meets Spector “Ultimate Stars,” with a violin spine upon which the (many) other instruments depend, a James Jamerson bass part, and a critical tambourine element.

This time, the credits actually identify the musicians by contribution. Which is helpful when there are 28 of them, including 11 vocalists. Among the vocalists are the aforementioned Outrageous Cherry mastermind Matthew Smith, Tara Jane O’Neil (Rodan, the Sonora Pine), Karla Schickele (Ida), Elizabeth Mitchell (Ida), Erika Hoffman (Godzuki, His Name Is Alive), Jessica Bailiff, Cynthia Nelson (Naysayer, Retsin), and Ted Leo. Warn Defever (His Name Is Alive) helped with mixing.

The Best Thing About This Album

The melodies sound good to me.

Release Date

March, 2003

The Cover Art

I don’t love it but i think it’s fine. Love the polka dots and the pointilist graphics. The yellow is okay, though the rest of the colors don’t work for me, and I think the composition is a little weird. I also hate the font – very disco.

Saturday Looks Good To Me – Saturday Looks Good To Me

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

There is a lot about Saturday Looks Good to Me that is confusing. First, this is not a real band, insofar as it is really Fred Thomas’s recording project, augmented by whatever group of friends and associates he has wrangled together. SLGTM has toured, but I do not believe the live cast of characters is standardized either. Equally disorienting is that, as a consequence of the haphazard lineup, there is no consistent lead singer. Whatever the merits of this approach, one drawback is that it is difficult to get a sense of the “band’s” identity. Also, their release history is a mess. Saturday Looks Good to Me was originally a nine-song, limited edition vinyl release in 2000. That was followed by Cruel August Moon in 2001, again with nine songs, this time on CD-R. Love Will Find You followed in 2002, possibly as a digital download only. They have issued a lot of singles, EPs, and CD-Rs.

What I Think of This Album

Motown for the indie set (albeit, a very white Motown), Saturday Looks Good to Me’s debut album gets by on melodies, production, and scruffy charm. All of those qualities would be amplified on later releases. There is a lot to like here, but you probably have to be predisposed to it. Sometimes the vocals are shaky and the lo-fi takes on Berry Gordy, Phil Spector, and occasionally Lee “Scratch” Perry, could throw some people off. If you keep a slightly open mind, though, you will be rewarded.

“Ambulance” sounds like weepy Motown/indie pop recorded underwater, ending in deconstructed echo. “I Could Cry” is pure girl-group, with a melody and rhythm to spare. “Ladder” is a male/female call-and-response duet with budget Spector sonics; the spoken word bridge against a saxophone backdrop is highly amusing. Heavenly by way of the Magnetic Fields is the touchstone for lullaby “Obstacle.”

A more robust Spector presentation is afforded to standout “Everyday,” which incorporates some stunning, mind-bending, dub-like production at the end. Sometimes, a certain section of the melody reminds me of “Do You Wanna Dance?” Thomas sings lead on ballad “I Would Find It So Beautiful,” a tear-soaked piece that really should have been a Jackie Wilson song. This gets a fuzzy instrumental reprise at the end.

Thomas continues warbling on “Bright Green Gloves,” perhaps the first appearance of his beloved “sink like a symphony” lyric, but Thomas’s vocal limitations are dwarfed by the melody and brass arrangement. Shades of the Magnetic Fields again, propelled by the specificity of the titular accessories. I’m not sure who sings on “No Point to Continue” but their everyman effort is similarly overshadowed by the baroque-indie-orchestral pop arrangement that SLGTM either threw together at the last minute or meticulously planned out (I can’t tell). 

The boomy, bassy “Don’t Try” is oddly compelling:  the cello, the spaghetti western whistling, Thomas’s unusually Danzig-esque intonation work together in a fashion that is equally unsettling and irresistible. The noise experiment ending only improves the song.

Even weaker tracks like “Car Crash” and “I Take a Chance Every Time” have something to recommend them.

The only real stumbles are the partially a capella “Last Night I Fell Asleep On Your Floor” (though the production does eventually get interesting), and the melodically stagnant, sing-songy “Think About Tomorrow.”

Among the 17 collaborators listed in the liner notes are Warn (sometimes spelled Warren) Defever of His Name Is Alive and Erika Hoffmann of Godzuki (and also, His Name Is Alive), as well as Elliott Bergman (Wild Belle), Chad Gilchrist (Outrageous Cherry, His Name Is Alive) and Zach Wallace (His Name Is Alive).

My version of this album is the 2002 iteration, which contains all of the original release but randomly peppers in three songs from Cruel August Moon and adds “Ambulance” and “Bright Green Glove,” whose origins are unclear to me.

Weirdness:  The liner notes say “Recorded 1976-2002,” and Thomas was born in 1976, so I am not sure what this means. Perhaps he threw in a recording of his infant speech somewhere in the mix?

The Best Thing About This Album

“Everyday” is amazing.

Release Date

2000 (original, vinyl only); 2002 (reissue)

The Cover Art

The layout decapitation is a little disturbing, but the aesthetic matches up well to the album’s sound. I don’t care for the white frame and the band’s name should be in a contrasting color. I like the blue in general, though.

The Drifters – The Very Best of the Drifters

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

When my son was young, he sometimes watched this cartoon show that, based on my limited attention, was Marvel’s Avengers except as young children (possibly The Super Hero Squad Show). There was a Valentine’s Day episode (I think) whereby the various cartoon child Avengers fell in love with each other by dint of some external force (which is a VERY odd conceit for child characters). At one point, a romantically-frustrated young Thor exclaims “This is NO kind of wonderful!” and I loved that throwaway reference to the Drifters’ song. Good job, writers for the Child Avengers!

What I Think of This Album

As the liner notes helpfully explain, the Drifters went through two distinct incarnations in the 1950s and 1960s, and even that summary is inadequate. This collection focuses on the more successful and well-known official version of the group – the one that ran from 1959 to the late ’60s.

I can think of two very good reasons to own this comp. One is that it contains perhaps the two best Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman songs in “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The other is that you get to hear Ben E. King sing lead on several tracks, and he has a great voice. As a third reason, if you happen to need one, this is a pretty strong representation of Brill Building songwriting, with very good-to-excellent material from not only Pomus/Shuman but also Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and even Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard.

King sings lead on most of these tracks, with additional songs led by Rudy Lewis, as well as Johnny Moore (who takes an oddly Elvis-like approach on 1964’s “Saturday Night At the Movies”), and at least one other person. Lewis actually had a very nice voice, and does an outstanding job on “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and Moore fucking kills it on “Under the Boardwalk” – that swoop from “down by the” up to “sea” is spine-tingling.

The piano and percussion on “Sweets for My Sweet” is wonderful (later covered, in worse fashion, by the Searchers). Is there a more dramatic intro than the vocals on “Some Kind of Wonderful”? “I Count the Tears” is excellent and “Up On the Roof” is a solid track. Classic status has been appropriately bestowed on “Under the Boardwalk,” which, on top of the genius vocal, has an easily overlooked glassine guitar part, a just-right bassline, and a sweet guiro.

The highlights, of course, are the eminently romantic “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Both are swoon-worthy. The violins on “Moment” are exquisite and King delivers a perfect vocal. The Latin sounds of “Save the Last Dance for Me” are irresistible; the polio-afflicted Pomus wrote the lyrics while watching his new bride dance at their wedding. There is some speculation that a young Phil Spector – apprentice to Leiber and Stoller at the time – had a hand in the production of this song.

I own an excellent book titled Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, which I recommend to anyone even remotely interested in this period of rock history.

Some interesting facts:  Phil Spector plays guitar on “On Broadway” and the backing vocals on three songs included Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, Doris Troy (who also sang on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), and Cissy Houston.

The liner notes explaining the immoral, unscrupulous business arrangement at the heart of the Drifters – the name was owned by George Treadwell, who could basically hire and fire the group’s members at will, none of whom got any royalties – are truly shocking.

Ben E. King died in 2015.

The Best Thing About This Album

The pair of Pomus/Shuman numbers.

Release Date

1993

The Cover Art

Blah.

The Dixie Cups – The Very Best of the Dixie Cups: Chapel of Love

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Yay! Another fucking compilation. I have no recollection of how I acquired this, but I know it was a physical purchase in a store, probably out of the budget bin. The Dixie Cups started out in New Orleans around 1963 as the Mel-tones, and consisted of sisters Barbara and Rosa Hawkins, and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. They wound up in New York and signed to Red Bird Records, the label started by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Their first song – “Chapel of Love” – was their biggest hit, though “Iko Iko” was popular too, and they carved out a nice career, with some line-up changes in later years. Johnson died in 2016.

What I Think of This Album

If you like girl groups at all, you will enjoy this album. Relatedly, if you like Brill Building songwriting, then you will enjoy this album. Most of the songs here are the work of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, but it is unclear who produced any of these tracks (there are at least tenuous connections to Phil Spector but I don’t think he worked on these tracks).

Beyond the obvious, eternal appeal of “Chapel of Love” and the innocent joy of “Iko Iko,” there are several strong tracks included. “People Say” is sweet, with a robust horn section. “Girls Can Tell” is a good song, though I greatly prefer the version by the Crystals (and there is also a version by the Ronettes). “Little Bell” sounds like an attempt to recapture the magic of “Chapel,” which it doesn’t do, but it’s still good.

Better is “You Should Have Seen the Way He Looked At Me,” with a fantastic backing track and lovely harmonies. The disc includes a sassy “I’m Gonna Get You Yet,” with great work from the studio musicians, and the celebratory “Another Boy Like Mine,” featuring some nice saxophone, as well as the busy “Ain’t That Nice.” “All Grown Up” is fairly irresistible, while “No True Love” employs country-ish guitar licks to interesting effect. The rest of the songs here are worth a spin.

The Best Thing About This Album

The production and arrangements.

Release Date

1998

The Cover Art

I wouldn’t call it clever, exactly, but it works, as the designer wisely chose to fully lean into the album title.

Talulah Gosh – Backwash

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Amelia Fletcher is a giant in the indie world, and so is her first band, Talulah Gosh. I got into Talulah Gosh backwards, having started with Heavenly, which I adore and after noticing Fletcher’s unmistakeable vocals on work by other bands I love, like the Wedding Present, Hefner, and the Pooh Sticks. If Talulah Gosh didn’t start the twee pop genre, they were certainly one of the early, major players. Talulah Gosh formed in Oxford, England in 1986. Economics student Amelia Fletcher met artist Elizabeth Price via matching Pastels pins (or badges, as they are known in the UK), and formed the band with Amelia’s fifteen year old brother Matthew on drums, Rob Pursey on bass, and Peter Momtchiloff on lead guitar. Pursey left quickly and was replaced by Chris Scott. Price departed before the third single was released, and her substitute was Eithne Farry. The band broke up in 1988, but the Fletchers, Momtchiloff, and Pursey reformed in the heavenly Heavenly (and then reformed to varying degrees after the demise of Heavenly in various other iterations, which you will read about later). Amelia Fletcher is an esteemed economist and university professor (East Anglia), and Momtchiloff is the/a (?) philosophy editor at Oxford University Press. Price won the Turner Prize for her art – in the medium of video – in 2012. Farry went into the magazine publishing world, while Pursey became a television producer. Amelia and Pursey are life partners. Matthew Fletcher took his own life in 1996.

What I Think of This Album

Released on K Records, as pretty much ordained by the indie music gods, these 25 tracks are almost everything Talulah Gosh recorded in their short, shambolic two year existence (a different comp will give you an additional four demo versions of songs, apparently pegging the band’s total output at 29 recordings).

From the get-go of galloping “Beatnik Boy,” Talulah Gosh establish themselves as unique, by fusing indie-pop sounds to girl-group vocals and a winsome stance. Steering away from anything sexy – note hilarious song title “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (Thank God)” – the band focused on the more romantic aspects of interpersonal relationships. But neither the lyrical content nor the musical style was simplistic or silly, even if the presentation was primitive.

From the punky “Break Your Face” to the desperate and frustrated “My Best Friend” (“So why should we both be so sad? / I’ll give you my heart / . . . / If you’ll give me yours / . . . / But I know that you won’t / Because you’re selfish that way”), Amelia Fletcher and company paint honest, devastating, and humorous portraits of young love. The vocals on the gossamer “Just A Dream” – with, I guess, an attempt at “Be My Baby”-style drums – are lovely. “Talulah Gosh” breaks the subject matter mold, exploring fame as relevant to Altered Images’ Clare Grogan (who was also an actor), and features some subtle whammy bar twangs, a wonderful shift in tempo from verse/bridge to chorus and back, and gloriously stacked-to-the-rafters vocals.

The band rides a Jesus and Mary Chain chord progression on “Steaming Train,” and jangle their way to greatness on the bleak “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (Thank God)” (“Did you know I’m a pessimist / Have you ever wanted to die? / Have you no decency? / It’s a hard world, that’s no lie”). Meanwhile, waves of distortion inform “My World’s Ending” and all hell breaks loose on feedback-laced, scream-filled “Testcard Girl.”

While the lyrics can be difficult to discern, the vocals are an absolute joy (the vocal arrangements are stupendous) and the music is energetic and fresh. Almost every track is a tiny gem – intricate “My Boy Says;” giddy “In Love For the Very First Time;” Katherine Hepburn tribute “Bringing Up Baby;” and the spy-guitar framed “Girl With the Strawberry Hair,” just to identify a few – and well worth tracking this album down for. This stuff was, appropriately, the inspiration for legions of indie pop bands, including spiritual cousins Cub; one listen to “Sunny Inside” or “Testcard Girl” tells you exactly from whence sprang Vivian Girls.

Among the producers involved here are John Rivers (Close Lobsters, Yatsura); Dale Griffin (drummer for Mott the Hoople); Martin Hayward of the Pastels; and Barry Andrews of XTC and Shriekback.

The Best Thing About This Album

The vocals are majestic.

Release Date

May, 1996

The Cover Art

This is an unmitigated disaster, but I love the music so much, I just overlook the cover.

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